An Egyptian constitution for all: A grassroots attempt at social inclusion

Nada El-Kouny , Sunday 11 Mar 2012

As political debate on the constitution focused on who will write what, civil society groups in Egypt take it upon themselves to work towards establishing a true social contract of and for the people

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Egyptian protesters sit by a banner that reads in Arabic "The Constitution first" during a rally at Tahrir Square 27 May, 2011 (Photo: AP)

Egypt's transitional period is rounding out, with an elected People's Assembly in place and the doors soon open for presidential elections. The constitution, however, remains a subject of confusion.

The nature of the 100-member elected constitutional committee, which parliamentary members are to form, remains unclear. Parliament most recently postponed its meeting on the matter to 24 March 2012 after disagreements broke out mainly over who is to form the body.

Major disagreements, such as what percentage of the committee will be parliamentary members, leave many worrying over the fate of the country's foundational document.

Abdel Galil Mostafa, from the National Association for Change (NAC) reform movement, stated that based on Article 60 of the Constitutional Declaration that is currently in effect, members of the committee are to be elected.

Mostafa added that MP’s cannot elect themselves, but rather need to elect members from civil society. He said civil society groups, including the NAC, reject electing parliamentary members to the committee.    

Several civil society organisations and activists have expressed doubts over the official decision-making process of Egypt's elected body, fearing that the parliamentary majority will wield disproportionate influence. Additionally, fears arise over the extent of equal representation, whether in regards to women, Copts or the youth. As a result, a number of civil society organisations and activists have taken it upon themselves to ensure a more democratic decision-making process is followed.

Initiatives such as "Let's Write our Constitution" and "Egyptian Workers and Farmers Write Their Constitution" are some such projects carried out by a number of organisations, including the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the New Women Foundation. Additionally, a number of syndicates and labour unions are involved. The aim is to come up with a broad-based document founded upon a range of popular Egyptian aspirations.

In June 2011, volunteers of the “Let’s Write our Constitution” initiative passed out documents in Tahrir Square, asking questions like, “What do you want to see change most in your work and in your neighbourhood?” Ahmed Heshmat at HMLC stated that this was an attempt to find out the basic aspirations of ordinary citizens without trying to influence their input.    

Mahinour El-Badrawi, a researcher at ECESR, explained the way in which these sessions were held and the kind of feedback that was received. ECESR focused on organising workshops amongst workers, farmers and fishermen from over 200 villages in Upper Egypt. A simple question was asked: "What are your dreams for Egypt?"

"I would like to be promoted in my job without having to face humiliation," one man stated.   

"I want an ambulance close to my place of work so that when I am injured I can make it in time to the hospital," stated one stone mine worker in Upper Egypt.        

Several instances of feedback shed light on the shortcomings in the healthcare system, including one man who stated: "I would like to find a doctor at the healthcare unit where I go to seek help." Another said: "I would like to find my rights when I go to the hospital, similar to in private pharmacies."

Sara El-Sayed from HMLC stated that some of the most recurrent points made, in addition to wage increases and job security, concerned transportation and adequate housing. She clarified that legal experts and specialists from various fields are to sit down to try to translate the collected contributions into constitutional and rights based language. Later, an attempt will be made to lobby for their bill to be presented in parliament. 

Ahmed Heshmat from HMLC clarified that it is not enough for citizens to vote 'yes' or 'no', such as during the constitutional referendum held 19 March 2011. Instead, citizens should be active participants in clarifying what it is they really want in a constitution. The aim is also to try to form a sense of "grassroots belongingness" amongst Egyptians, stated El-Badrawi.

While this attempt is new, local and international experience can serve as a guide. The South African experience in writing the 1955 Freedom Charter is a good example. There, civil society organisations and approximately 50,000 volunteers went around the country collecting demands from citizens. The resulting bill was adopted and came into effect with the new South African constitution in 1997.

El-Badrawi said the Egyptian Constitutional Declaration of 1954 is another important example. “It is important for a constitution to include as much detail as possible,” she stated, in order to avoid ambiguity. This was one of the faults of Egypt’s most recent constitution of 1971.  

However, El-Sayed clarified that it is equally important for a constitution to not be overly detailed, since it needs to encourage society to develop and grow. The Brazilian constitution in the last 24 years has undergone 74 amendments as a result of being too detailed.

Heshmat warned of the same issue, stating that while the 1971 constitution may have included some good articles, and granted certain rights, it nevertheless included articles that also allow for their annulment. Thus, it is important to outline what these rights are and how one can attain them.

Heshmat believes that the rights of minorities, including Bedouins, Nubians, Copts and women are those that need to be protected most, while efforts should be made to ensure these social components are equally represented.

Transitional justice is also crucial. Including provisions on the injured and the families of the martyrs is important for social peace to gain ground. This is a clear lesson derived from South African experience.

Several Latin American constitutions, like those of Chile, Argentina and Brazil, are also important points of reference, in that they have undergone a similar transformation, moving from military dictatorship to open democracy and elected civilian government.

Maha Maamoun, from the ‘No to Military Trials’ campaign, who is also involved in the initiative, stated that what is most important is “ensuring that no one is above the law”. Under the current Constitutional Declaration, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is a higher authority that can interfere in the decision making process.

Maamoun asserted that while there has been a lack of motivation and a certain loss of hope among Egyptians it is important to work towards long-term effects and to regard Egypt's democratic transition as a process to build in the coming years. In this, for El-Badrawi, the constitution is more a mechanism through which to achieve rights than a guarantor of rights directly.

Understood this way, the constitiution appears not so much as an end product to finish as fast as possible, but rather as a process in which all members of society should be engaged, debating what society is, what rights they aspire to, and what collective duties all Egyptians can agree to. 

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